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Forestry agreements need a full overhaul, not just a tick and flick

Regional Forest Agreements were supposed to give certainty to both loggers and conservationists. But they haven’t. Pengo/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For almost two decades, the management of forests in parts of Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales has been underpinned by state and federal Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs), defined as “20-year plans for the conservation and sustainable management of Australia’s native forests”.

The broad aim of RFAs is to “provide certainty for forest-based industries, forest-dependent communities and conservation”. RFAs are now up for renewal, and it would certainly be in industry advocates’ interest for them to be simply “ticked off”, without the critical scrutiny that is clearly warranted.

The RFAs need to be fully reviewed, not just renewed, because they have had highly perverse outcomes – rather than helping to ease environmental problems, the agreements have actually worsened them in some cases.

Forestry flaws

The flawed Victorian Central Highlands RFA is a classic case that highlights why simply rolling over the existing RFAs would amount to mismanagement of publicly owned native forests.

The Victorian Central Highlands RFA was signed with much fanfare on March 27, 1998 by then Prime Minister John Howard and Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett. In a media release, Howard’s environment minister Robert Hill declared:

The RFA will result in more effective management of endangered species by protecting areas of high quality habitat, by making programs more focused, and by setting priorities for specific plans to protect threatened species… [The RFA] ensures that the whole forest will be sustainably managed for future generations … [and] provides the certainty needed for jobs and opportunities in the regional and State economy.

I have distinct personal recollections of events leading to the signing of that agreement, because I guided Hill and local MP Fran Bailey around the montane ash forests of Victoria. I warned Hill of the dangers of “locking in” over-harvesting, and gave him a copy of a scientific paper indicating that this was likely to happen.

Time has proved me right. Over-harvesting has now demonstrably occurred, but this is just one of a slew of problems in the area covered by the Central Highlands RFA. These include:

  • Leadbeater’s Possums are now critically endangered, and their reserve system is totally inadequate. Victorian government modelling suggests that almost the entire montane ash forest estate needs to be protected to conserve the possums, yet this unique ecosystem is critically endangered.

  • Populations of large, old trees necessary for the survival of Leadbeater’s Possum (and many other vertebrates) are crashing to historically low levels. Unburned and unlogged old-growth forest now covers just 1.16% of the mountain ash forest estate – probably the most limited extent in the evolutionary history of this tree species.

  • Regenerating forests recovering from clearfell logging have a higher risk of burning at significantly higher severity.

  • Levels of direct employment in the native forest logging industry are in freefall. There are fewer than 75 direct jobs in the Yarra Ranges Council area and fewer than 55 in the Shire of Murrundindi. The native forest logging industry continues to cost the Victorian taxpayer millions of dollars each year through direct and indirect subsidies.

  • The Victorian government’s inadequate reviews of forest management plans and zoning over the past 15 years mean that the management of state forests has not been as responsive as it was supposed to be. For instance, despite more than 70,000 hectares of montane ash forest having been burned in the 2009 Black Saturday fires, there has been almost no reduction in sustained yield (from an already overcut forest estate). Some reduction in yield is set to begin in 2017 – eight years after the fires.

  • Continued rates of overcutting will see the extinction of the sawlog industry within a few decades; thereby locking in a woodchip and pulp industry that currently consumes more than 80% of production from montane ash forest.

Disappointing reality

These problems (and many others) show that the reality of how the Central Highlands forests have been managed over these past 18 years is a far cry from the optimism on show back in 1998.

Leadbeater’s possum habitat has declined since the 1998 Regional Forest Agreement was put in place in Victoria’s Central Highlands. Pengo/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The RFA has locked in unsustainable (clearfell) logging practices that have significant impacts on environmental and conservation values. It has fuelled a forestry industry driven by paper pulp (not sawlogs) that survives only with taxpayer subsidies, threatens the viability of plantations, and has seen a plunge in direct employment within the native logging sector.

Meanwhile, the RFA provides no flexibility to deal with the loss of timber resources through natural disturbances like fire, thereby resulting in overcutting. As a result, the agreement could potentially “lock in” the extinction of endangered species like Leadbeater’s Possum. What’s more, the RFA takes legal precedence over state and federal endangered species legislation.

Not an isolated case

The Central Highlands RFA is far from an isolated example; another is the recently exposed logging of Swift parrot breeding habitat in Tasmania, and all of the existing RFAs have deep-seated problems. Simply rolling them over as if nothing has changed in the past 20 years is inappropriate and irresponsible.

In the Central Highlands alone, my research team has published more than 150 new scientific studies and five books since the RFA was signed in 1998. And even before then, the assessment process arguably ignored critical information like that on the risks of overcutting. Archival documents show that the Kennett government had no intention of enforcing sustainable rates of logging.

A complete overhaul of the RFA process is clearly warranted. But this must go well beyond a review of the new science, extensive though it is. We need a truly forensic analysis of the economics of (and social mandate for) native forest logging. This would include independent audits of government logging agencies like VicForests.

We also need to reverse the perverse situation that means that an RFA can trump endangered species conservation. Driving species to extinction and increasing the risk of ecological collapse of entire forest ecosystems clearly undermines the stated purpose of RFAs.

RFAs are entrenching native forest logging as a loss-making enterprise that degrades important values such as water availability, carbon storage, wildlife conservation, and the tourism value of forested areas. They are not giving Australians a sound return on their publicly owned natural assets. The agreements are ideological, not logical. It’s time for a rethink.

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